PATOC 2020: Performing Arts in the Time of Corona
This international conference further created a platform for many administrators and policymakers to discuss and debate how to facilitate and develop infrastructure allowing for a better online learning experience. It also allowed academics to reconsider how Covid-19 has altered teaching, learning, and assessment methods, and how technology has intervened in the teaching and learning experience. In general, a majority of academics and researchers are still not in a position decide whether the changes happening in academic spheres and the intervention of technology to deliver subject content are to be fully accepted.
By Saumya Liyanage and Nipuni Sharada Pathirage
According to a recent report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), after more than twelve months of battling the pandemic, more than 75 million people worldwide have been infected by the coronavirus while 1.6 million deaths have been reported worldwide (Who.int, 2019). In late 2019, coronavirus was first found in the Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China and within a short period, it spread rapidly around the globe, hampering human interactions and mobility. Economic, political, and social activities have slowed down, and many cities, townships, and regional areas have been isolated.
Numerous political, economic and social issues have cropped up during this health crisis (Liyanage, 2020a, Liyanage, 2020b), and the education sector is paralyded (Kaufman, Brodeur and McGlone, 2020, Asia Society, 2020). For the last twelve months, teaching in schools and universities in Sri Lanka has been affected and online learning and teaching activities have been introduced. In order to sustain undergraduate education, universities have introduced online learning platforms to engage with their teaching, learning, and assessment activities. Students are also engaging in e-learning modes and academic activities, weekly meetings, lectures, conferences, and even symposia are also being transformed into online and virtual. The face-to-face engagement and tangibility of human interactions in performing arts education are becoming scarce.
Performing Arts and the Pandemic
The University of Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) is the only university in the country dedicated to undergraduate and postgraduate studies in music, dance, drama, and visual arts. The UVPA has also been affected by Covid-19 pandemic measures, and the health emergency adversely impacted the undergraduate activities in four Faculties of the University. It has particularly disrupted the teacher-disciple engagement, which is essential for learning performing arts. Live corporeal presence in performing arts learning has been altered by virtual bodily presence. These virtual bodies are accompanied by amplified human voices mixed with ambience generated through online technologies. Continual disruptions to the Internet, time lapses between the teacher and student, ambiguity of virtual presence, monologic narratives, narcissistic embarrassments, and the gaze of the ‘Other’ are becoming norms in the ‘new normalcy’ of the world.
As a premiere institution for performing arts education in Sri Lanka, UVPA has been forced to deliver subject content through online platforms. Offering university education, especially performing arts, through distance learning is still a contested and provocative idea among academics and students (Simamora, 2020). While some academics argue that the only solution to continue undergraduate education during pandemic restriction is to introduce online platforms, others are still not convinced that these online platforms could be a wiser solution to the ongoing crisis of performing arts education. However, with the advent of the pandemic and its impact upon ongoing learning activities in Universities, research on delivering performing arts through online modes such as Zoom conferencing, Learning Management Systems (LMS), Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams have become a key topic for many research papers published (Demuyakor, 2020, DeWitt et al., 2013, Kindelan, 2010, Simamora, 2020). These discussions undoubtedly contribute to the ongoing debate about online learning and virtual experience in performing arts education in the higher education sector. The culmination of this debate at the UVPA Colombo was the two-day international conference organized by the Faculty of Dance and Drama, which took place on the 21st and 22nd of December via Zoom technology.
Facing daily pandemic measures and also converting and continuing traditional performing arts pedagogy on an online platform was a novel but challenging task for academics at the Faculty of Dance and Drama at UVPA Colombo. The methods of distance learning and technology were relatively new to both academics and students of the Faculty. During the first wave of the pandemic, academics attended workshops and seminars to identify the capacity of distance learning and exploring new methods and strategies of delivering performing arts content online. In this context, the Dean of the Faculty of Dance and Drama, Dr Indika Ferdinando came up with the idea of an online international conference to discuss and debate on various aspects of e-learning and performance practice. The action team of the conference and the Faculty web committee decided to use this opportunity as a space for discussing the impact of Covid-19 on performing arts education and practice particularly in Sri Lankan universities and explore how other stakeholders and institutions are grappling with the current situation.
The theme of the conference was Performing Arts in the Time of Corona: The Impact of Covid-19 pandemic on Performing Arts education and practice (PATOC). The PATOC International conference invited practitioners, academics, students, and researchers all over the world to present their abstracts on the theme. The online conference commenced on 21 December 2020 with Dr Indika Ferdinando delivering the welcome speech and spelling out the objectives of the event. The chief guest of the conference, the Vice-Chancellor of UVPA, Senior Professor Rohana P. Mahaliayanaarachchi delivered the inaugural speech about the therapeutic value of performing arts. There were three keynote speeches on both days: Prof. William Peterson from Flinders University, Kalakeerthi Ravibandhu Vidyapathy and Professor Adrian McNeil from Monash University delivered their keynote speeches. The first event of the PATOC conference was the keynote by Prof. William Peterson from Flinders University, South Australia and this session was chaired by Prof. Saumya Liyanage. Prof. Peterson discussed how a group of artists challenges the codependency of Covid-19 and suggests new ways of living, and practices creative arts in this pandemic time. The afternoon session of the day started with the keynote speech of one of the eminent dance practitioners and artists in Sri Lanka, Ravibandhu Vidyapathy, who suggested that dance practitioners should move to open spaces, use basic technical devices to create minimalist dance that glorify the aesthetics of artistically extended human movements and celebrate the dance art. This keynote session was chaired by Dr Anasuya Subasinghe. The second day of the conference started with another keynote speech delivered by Prof. Adrian McNeil from Monash University, Australia. This keynote session was chaired by Dr Priyeshni Peiris. Prof. McNeil discussed the impact of Covid-19 on the music industry considering two music festivals: St. Kilda Festival in Melbourne and the Swar Samrat Festival in Kolkata. Taking them as case studies, he concluded that universities have responsibilities to sustain and practice diverse musical heritages and find ways to cope with social and natural catastrophes.
Each day was designed with two parallel sessions consisting of blind-reviewed papers selected by a group of academics. Eight-minute-long PowerPoint presentations were recorded by researchers, and during the sessions the technical staff played them to avoid technical interruptions. There was a five-minute online Q&A session after each presentation and the presenter was asked to be online at this point to respond to the comments and questions for the presentation. To conclude the two-day online conference, a panel discussion was organised and it was chaired by Prof. Saumya Liyanage. The theme of the discussion was ‘Potential alternative modes of practicing and teaching performing arts during the pandemic’. Prof. William Peterson, Professor Adrian McNeil, Dr Or Kittikong and Dr. Chinthaka Maddegoda presented as panelists. Approximately 140 participants were registered for both days of the conference.
For two days, academics, practitioners, postgraduate students and undergraduates from various institutions in the country and abroad shared their thoughts and research findings at the PATOC conference. Some quantitative research was presented at the conference exploring the impact of Covid-19 on performing arts education, as well as the perspectives of academics and students on teaching-learning performing arts through online methods. Most of the papers asserted that physical distancing had affected the traditional systems of performing arts education and practice. Also these papers concluded that there are limitations of sustaining the collectiveness and the liveness of performing arts when delivering content through online modes. Some papers came up with innovative ideas to overcome these challenges. For instance a group of researchers introduced effective ways of using video materials and sound technology in performing arts education though the general conception of online technology was negative. While some papers emphasised the value and importance of embracing the new digital technology and virtual performance to sustain the industry, some researchers promoted solo performances as a new way of skill development in performing arts learning.
The role of performing arts as a medium of promoting social awareness, or as a therapy and tool for developing mental stability and reducing phobias during the pandemic were some of the key points shared. Researchers in general implied that performing arts educators and practitioners needed to adapt to the ‘new normal’ and to think out of the box to design alternative modes and practice.
Prof. Peterson at the final plenary session discussed the current crisis of arts and cultural studies in major universities in Australia and the challenges they faced in restructuring departments and reviewing existing theatre music and dance studies. It was evident that it is not only the pandemic that has challenged the existing performing arts education and industry but other socio-political forces are also in place to destabilise the sustainable progression of performing arts education. Dr Chinthaka Maddegoda, an academic working at the Faculty of Music further explored the pandemic situation and current declining gurukul or gharana traditions in teaching performing arts.
Dr Maddegoda emphasised that the current health crisis had created opportunities to liberate traditional teacher-centered learning, and opened up democratic spaces. Prof. Adrian McNeil raised several vital questions related to the declining cultural economy by comparing two global cultural venues namely Calcutta and Melbourne, Australia. As Prof. McNeil further argued, with the new normality, the reconfiguration of cultural practices and their discursive implications and reconfiguration of the idea of aesthetics in the new era of performing arts should also be revisited and reconsidered. Dr Or Kittikong from Khon Kaen University, Thailand, further discussed the limitations and also opportunities in teaching performing arts during corona pandemic measures. Her main concern was the issues pertaining to the failure of co-presence of student-teacher conundrum in the classroom setting. With governments imposing measures to maintain social distancing and other health rituals, performing arts teaching and performance practices are becoming social taboos. Some of the vital elements in performing arts such as collaborating, engaging, creating, communication, critiquing, and enacting are becoming alienated concepts.
The PATOC 2020, Performing Arts in the Time of Corona, online international conference brought various artistes, practitioners, scholars, and students who are currently working, studying, and conducting research on performing arts and its related disciplines into a single forum where they share their stories in the time of a pandemic. This international conference further created a platform for many administrators and policymakers to discuss and debate about how to facilitate and develop infrastructure allowing for a better online learning experience. It allowed academics to reconsider how Covid-19 has altered teaching, learning, and assessment methods, and how technology has intervened in the teaching and learning experience. In general, a majority of academics and researchers are still not in a position decide whether the changes happening in academic spheres and the intervention of technology to deliver subject content are to be fully accepted. However, with the pandemic situation and the lack of physical presence of students and teachers in the university premises, alternative e-learning is the only way to continue performing arts education and practice. Yet, it is worthwhile to note that the corporeal presence and its on-site contact with the audience are still vital elements for a successful development of the discipline.
The authors of this article wish to acknowledge the Vice Chancellor Senior Professor Rohana P. Mahaliyanaarachchi, the Dean, Faculty of Dance and Drama, Dr Indika Ferdinando, the PATOC 2020 conference committee members. Further, the authors wish to thank Himansi Dehigama and Sachini Seneviratne for proofreading this paper.
About authors: Prof. Saumya Liyanage is an actor and academic currently working as a Professor in theatre and drama, Faculty of Dance and Drama, UVPA, Colombo. Nipuni Sharada Pathirage is an actress and academic currently working as a probationary lecturer attached to the Department of Drama Oriental Ballet and Modern Dance, UVPA Colombo.
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A deeper scrutiny of ‘intelligence related matters’ needed
Public Security Minister retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera Monday, 18 at his ministry met Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC, to discuss ways and means of strengthening law enforcement operations. Public Security Ministry Secretary retired Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis and IGP Chandana Wickremaratne participated in the discussion.
Former Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) of Police H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya, having read our last week’s column, further elaborated on the revelation by retired SDIG Merril Gunaratne pertaining to what he called the unprecedented expansion of the DIG cadre during Dingiri Banda Wijetunga’s tenure as the President (May 1993 to Nov 1994).
Kotakadeniya, one of the most outspoken senior cop, while in service (if one had cared to canvas his opinion) and now in retirement, said Wijetunga’s intervention had been far worse than mentioned and caused the further deterioration of the service. The retired Senior DIG sent us the following statement in the wake of the writer’s comment on Gunaratne’s latest work ‘Perils of a Profession’, titled ‘Perils of a Profession jolts scandal- ridden police’ published in the January 13, 2021 edition of The Island:
“In the chapter, titled ‘Violation of the line of seniority – a major cause for decline,’ it is stated President Wijetunge ordered the DIG cadre to be increased from 19 to 30 and that there was speculation about this increase benefitting an officer who was a favourite of the President. I would like to add two relevant facts regarding this issue.
“Shortly after Wijetunga assumed office as the President, in 1993, he summoned me to the Presidential Secretariat. At that time I was based at Police Headquarters as DIG Headquarters and DIG Administration. My parents and I had the privilege of being acquainted with Wijetunga from my childhood as we were from the same village.
“When I met the President, he told me that the welfare of Police officers hadn’t been given the due importance and, therefore, to redress the situation he had an idea to appoint a DIG to handle welfare work in each DIG Range. He inquired from me whether I would endorse the proposal.
“I reflected for a few seconds and replied that the subject of welfare in each range was being looked after by an Inspector, and therefore the appointment of an officer of a rank of DIG was not quite necessary. The President did not appear to be pleased with my response.
“If few days, after this meeting, with the President, I was transferred as the DIG Logistics on 1.10.1994 and thereafter to Chilaw on 4.10.1994. I felt that the move by the President, to appoint several DIGs’ in charge of ‘welfare’, was meant to fulfill his desire to expand the DIG cadre to allow his favourite officer who was very junior, to also become a DIG.
“The other matter was that the DIG cadre increase was not from 19 to 30, but much above 40 since the officer concerned was at that time 44th in the list of Senior Superintendents. “
Kotakadeniya refrained from mentioning names. The Island inquiries revealed that ironically highly respected Frank Silva had been the IGP at that time and Mahinda Balasuriya the beneficiary.
Kotakadeniya, who had served as Defence Ministry advisor during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first tenure as the President following the 2005 November Presidential election, was the only retired officer to respond to The Island piece.
Deterioration of the public sector
The deterioration of the police should be addressed at the highest level. Unfortunately, successive governments, in spite of their grandiose plans to restore the dignity of the once proud service caused further deterioration. Political parties cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the current predicament.
But at least it is no longer a runaway rogue force, hand in glove with the underworld, due to the current government’s no nonsense line on law enforcers. Yet the current dispensation, too, is still struggling to cope with the situation against continuing revelations on the depth of its rot. The revelation of the clandestine dealings involving the elite Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) and heroin Mafia sent shock waves through the entire security establishment. Gunaratne, however, hadn’t at least made a reference to the PNB fiasco or the controversial release of Easter Sunday massacre suspect Riyaj Bathiudeen who had been held in CID custody in terms of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
Mahinda Balasuriya received the appointment as the IGP in early November 2009 during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first tenure as the President. Balasuriya resigned in early June 2011 following the killing of a 21-year-old worker, during a protest, by police fire at the Katunayake Export Processing (EPZ).
The government rewarded him with a diplomatic appointment. Balasuriya, perhaps is the only retired IGP to receive an appointment as head of a diplomatic mission in spite of stepping down under controversial circumstances. Balasuriya served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Brazil. With the Parliamentary High Posts Committee, chaired by the Speaker, nothing but a rubber stamp for successive governments to accommodate their favourites, at the taxpayers’ expense, without any difficulty.
Balasuriya received significant media coverage when he was investigated by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that Inquired into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges (PRECIFAC). The yahapalana outfit probed why Balasuriya provided armed police security for members of Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF), who hadn’t been at least members of Parliament.
The Commission sought clarification on what grounds Balasuriya provided security in the period 2010-2015.
The Commission estimated the exercise could have cost the taxpayer approximately Rs 30 mn.
Gunaratne dealt with officers with political patronage at different levels exploiting the much abused system to secure promotions. In the chapter referred to by Kotakadeniya, Gunaratne depicted an extremely negative picture of the service.
Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section that referred to the pathetic situation of some influential persons securing key posts and promotions for stooges at the expense of the deserving: “The pattern, so monotonous since 1977, had seriously demoralized the service. Some have been adept not only in the ‘long jump,’ but also in ‘hop, step and jump,’ by obtaining more than one promotion outside the eligible criteria.
Backdoor entry into Parliament
But should we be surprised by irregular police promotions? In a country where defeated candidates can be accommodated in Parliament through the backdoor or ruling party perpetrated Treasury bond scams twice in 2015 and 2016, ‘rape of the seniority line’ as underscored by Gunaratne seemed not so serious an issue. In fact, the rot in the police is just one symptom of the overall deterioration of both public and private sectors.
In spite of the creation of the National Police Commission (NPC) in terms of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution followed by the 19th and the recently introduced 20th, the crisis-ridden department is in bad shape. The PNB’s alleged involvement in drug dealing, Riyaj Bathiudeen’s sudden shock release, alleged attempts to undermine police investigation into Easter Sunday attacks, handling of the probe into negligence on the part of Brandix and government officials in respect of the second Covid-19 eruption highlighted fundamental flaws in law enforcement.
Police continue to play politics and politicians continue to play with the police. Both parties engage in ‘politics’ at the expense of truth and credibility. The Parliament remains indifferent. Yahapalana IGP Pujith Jayasundera, in the wake of the Oct 26, 2018 constitutional crisis caused by the sacking of Wickremesinghe government, immediately switched his allegiance to the Rajapaksas. Jayasundera returned to the fold as President Sirisena’s ambitious project collapsed.
Over the years, politicians have set up systems that took care of problems. Actually, Gunaratne in ‘Dilemma of an Island’ (2001), ‘Cop in the Crossfire’ in 2011 and the latest ‘Perils of a Profession’ launched this January dealt with perhaps some broader issues though a fully-fledged Presidential Commission as suggested by the author is required to reach consensus on genuine remedial measures.
Former Sub Inspector and defeated candidate at the August 2020 general election Palitha Range Bandara recently received the appointment as the General Secretary of the demoralized UNP. Bandara succeeded Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, who was rewarded with the post of Assistant Leader.
Beleaguered UNP leader Wickremesinghe picked Bandara in spite of him being accused often of divided loyalties. But in relation to ‘Perils of a Profession,’ it would be pertinent to mention that Bandara received backdated promotion to the rank of ASP in Dec 2017, courtesy the NPC.
The NPC recommended promotion for cop-turned-politician Bandara to the rank of ASP on the grounds the previous Rajapaksa administration victimized him, politically, though he had left the police long before Rajapaksa came to power in 2005. The NPC made the recommendation to the Law and Order and Southern Development Ministry. The NPC responded to Bandara’s appeal and recommended that MP Bandara be reinstated in the Police Service from 24 August 2000 and promoted to the ASP rank on the 27th of the same month and sent him on retirement. Promoting an SI to the rank of ASP cannot be an issue for those yahapalana grandees who brought back Maj. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake from retirement to name him the Commander of the Army. The National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) carried out the Easter Sunday attacks during Senanayake’s tenure as the Army Commander. Instead of accepting responsibility for the failure on the part of the Directorate of Military (DMI) to thwart the NTJ project, Senanayake exploited the police lapses to contest the last presidential election. Senanayake couldn’t poll even 50,000 votes. The results of the Nov 2019 presidential poll placed Senanayake fourth behind JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake.
The yahapalana administration also brought back Rear Admiral Travis Sinniah from retirement to place the Navy under him. However, it is pertinent to mention that Sinniah led some of the most successful operations on the high seas against the LTTE arms smuggling vessels.
Need for clear cut procedures
The government will have to set up specific mechanisms to deal with both law enforcement and military officers claiming political victimization, rightly or wrongly, instead of looking at them through a political lense as has been happening under various governments. Gunaratne mentioned several instances of how retired senior officers brazenly exploited the political setup for their advantage. In the absence of procedures, any wrongdoer can secure benefits at the expense of the truth.
The author dealt with an attempt made by a Colombo-based diplomatic mission to recruit a police intelligence officer in the early 70s. Having named the officer concerned as Ananda Jayasekera, who passed away in 2019, Gunaratne discussed the case that ended up with the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike being alerted to the foreign mission’s bid to run an agent within the State Intelligence setup.
During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second presidential term, the US Embassy made an abortive bid to recruit Maj. Gen. Prasad Samarasinghe. The offer was made at a party hosted by the then US Defence attaché Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith on January 20, 2011, in honour of a senior officer from the US Pacific Command.
Samarasinghe not only turned down the offer to secure permanent residency in the US for him and his family by betraying the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he promptly brought the US bid to the latter’s notice.
Against the backdrop of foreign powers stepping up their clandestine activities over the years, the circumstances under which Inspector Nishantha Silva of the CID secured political asylum for himself and his entire family a week after the last presidential poll underscored the pivotal importance of the intelligence services keeping a track of developments. Did the State Intelligence Service (SIS) headed by SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena know of the connection between Nishantha Silva and the Swiss Embassy?
Subsequent inquiries revealed a much wider conspiracy involving Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Francis, (former Siriyalatha Perera), the Swiss Embassy and the police officer who prominently figured in the leaked audio tapes of the then UNP State Minister Ranjan Ramanayake. Did SIS at least know the controversial CID investigator’s plan to flee the country in the event of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the presidential poll? Did the then Director, CID SSP Shani Abeysekera know of his subordinate’s plan?
If the Swiss government succeeded in evacuating Garnier Francis in an air ambulance amidst accusations that government personnel molested her and threatened her with death, immediately after Inspector Silva fled the country, the issue would have been raised in Geneva at the forthcoming 46th UNHRC sessions as if it was the gospel truth. However, the possibility of the matter still being raised during the Feb-March 2021 sessions cannot be ruled out as the West is quite capable of making an untruth a truth, especially through their ‘independent’ media as happened with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or the maligning of Gaddafi just before his ouster and gruesome killing in public.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa placed the SIS under intelligence veteran Maj. Gen. Suresh Sally. The SIS had never been under a military officer before. The crisis-ridden police are now placed under retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera as the Minister of Public Security with retired Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis as the Secretary to that Ministry. The Office of Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), too, has been placed under retired Maj. Gen. Ruwan Kulathunga. In spite of the much tighter hold on the intelligence setup, the government was caught flat-footed when the demolition of the LTTE war memorial on January 8, 2021 in the Jaffna University triggered chaos. The incident placed both Sri Lanka and India in an embarrassing position as the demolition of the memorial took place close on the heels of Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s high profile visit to Colombo.
Although the author made reference to the failure on the part of the police to thwart the Easter Sunday attacks, an issue as important as how the Indian intelligence managed its operations aimed at the NTJ hadn’t received due attention.
Did India alert SIS regarding their NTJ hunt or just provided the finished intelligence product on April 4, 2019, regarding the planned operation? Sri Lanka should be really worried about foreign intelligence services engaged in clandestine activities here, especially against the backdrop of growing US-China rivalry, with the former receiving the backing of India, Japan and Australia.
PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran killing outside the Maldivian HC in Colombo in July 1989 revealed the possible involvement of the Indian intelligence. The killing took place in the wake of the PLOTE bid to overthrow the then Maldivian President Gayoom at the behest of a Maldivian businessman. The sea borne PLOTE raid went awry even before Indian troops landed there to bring the situation quickly under control.
A deeper scrutiny of ‘developments’ is required as China-US hostilities take a turn for the worse with both seeking to enhance their spheres of influence. The need for the intelligence services to be prepared to face multifarious threats on different levels is of paramount importance. The Easter Sunday carnage is certainly not the first intelligence failure and it wouldn’t be the last.
The assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa on May Day 1993 exposed the entire intelligence setup. The infiltration of President Premadasa’s inner circle by the LTTE is perhaps the worst single intelligence failure that proved the importance of the intelligence services being on top of the ‘political game,’ too. For intelligence services, there cannot be a worse period than President Premadasa’s tenure (1989-1993). An ignorant President played pandu with national security leading to the Eelam War II in June 1990 with disastrous consequences. Retired SSP Tassy Seneviratne didn’t mince his words when he appeared before the LLRC. Seneviratne explained how President Premadasa’s interventions caused debilitating losses at the onset of the Eelam War II. The rest is history.
The Royalty and its ‘Yes’ Men
By Lynn Ockersz
The air is thick once again,
With the familiar refrain,
That you, the ‘Sovereign People’,
Are at centre stage,
In this wearying racking of brains,
On how the notoriously Nodding Land’s,
Primal law must take shape,
But here’s the truth none can escape:
You have descended from wage labourer,
To an alms-seeker of the street,
And your hearth’s flames,
Are sputtering to an ominous end,
But the timeless moral remains:
You are hapless pawns,
In a decades-long power game,
Featuring dynastic heavyweights,
And their 225 ‘Yes’ men.
From Jaffna library to University – politics of identity
By Harim Peiris
A centre of Tamil learning in Jaffna was attacked and destroyed. No, not last week, but 40 years ago, in 1981, the iconic Jaffna Library, a seat of Tamil language, literature and learning was burnt to cinders by a mob of what then cabinet ministers Cyril Mathew et al were watching, perhaps not entirely as innocent bystanders, from the veranda of the old Jaffna Rest House termed as “an unfortunate rampage by a few drunk and off duty police officers”. Coming a full circle, four decades later, once again a seat of Tamil learning, this time namely the University of Jaffna, witnessed the destruction of its memorial to the dead. The police officers were again there, now on duty and very sober, as under cover of darkness, they guarded the backhoes which did the demolition. The contexts were different, the events eerily similar, while the rhetoric is strikingly the same.
Back then there wasn’t even the pretence of trying to justify the actions and two years later in 1983, we had a pogrom and were in the midst of a civil war. Now, a decade after the civil war in Sri Lanka is over, we must learn from the lessons of the past. It is former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who paraphrased Spanish philosopher Santayana to state in the House of Commons that “those who did not learn from the lessons of history were destined to relive it”.
Post the civil war, the urge to curb Tamil nationalism from taking on any form of militancy or armed expression is an entirely legitimate and desirable objective. No one in his or her right mind would wish or desire Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations to once again lead to a civil war. However, towards this end, what is required is an intentional and purposeful, domestic process of post war reconciliation, which includes reparations and guarantees of non-reoccurrence. Unfortunately, more than a decade after the end of the civil war, dealing with either the effects or the causes of the war has not occurred in a meaningful manner. After the war, in the former conflict areas, the roads have been repaired and the public buildings reconstructed, but the shattered lives of especially the most vulnerable sections of Northern society, the widows, the orphans and the rural poor, remain largely as they were a decade ago.
Playing demolition derby in the University of Jaffna is not the means of advancing reconciliation. In fact, the University of Jaffna provides a useful safety valve and escape outlet for the frustrations of Tamil youth and curbing non-violent expressions of ethnic nationalism only drives it to less non-violent spaces. Neither does destroying the memorial to the dead, do anything to moderate Tamil opinion. Engagement and dialogue would have been better. It is a point that was reiterated most recently by visiting Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar and likely to be reiterated by a majority of the International community at the upcoming sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva.
Memorialising and remembering the dead
Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations and social tensions extend beyond life and into the realm of death. It is a key aspect of our humanity that we mourn our dead. The religious faith or belief systems by which we make sense of life and death and especially find the strength to move on after the death of loved ones, especially under tragic and violent circumstances are crucial aspects of our personal and community life. Accordingly, the need and right to mourn the dead, is fundamental to us as humans and crucial to providing healing and closure, especially in the aftermath of a brutal and long drawn civil war, which resulted in the destruction of considerable life and property of both combatants and non-combatants on all sides.
Sri Lanka’s current controversy over the remembrance of the dead is not just confined to the Tamil populace seeking to mourn the loss of loved ones during or at the tail end of the war. On our new battle front of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka has become the only country in the world, to prohibit the burial of the dead with the religious rites and rituals of the deceased and in accordance with the wishes of the next of kin. The decision of the government, through its Ministry of Health, which bears the responsibility, is on the flimsiest of pretences based on the views of its own handpicked “experts” who are contradicted officially by public communique not only by the independent and distinguished College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka but also by the WHO and the practice of the global community of nations. Even with the far more contagious Ebola virus, the dead are buried with no adverse effects and the view of the government’s “experts”, truly make us a land like no other.
It is my friend and colleague, University of Amsterdam academic Dr. Ram Manikkalingam who coined the phrase, “Sinhala Eelam” to denote a Sri Lanka, which was the Sinhala equivalent of what Prabhakaran and the LTTE sought to create, a mono ethnic nation governed on ethnic lines.
Sri Lanka’s strength and moral superiority over the separatism which was defeated at Nandikadal, derives from the fact that we are multi-ethnic and multi religious and we should cherish that strength and, in its defence, desist from governing exclusively by the prism of ethnic Sinhala nationalism. Bulldozing monuments does nothing towards that end.
(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-17)
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